Video of my kickboxing fight is here, at blogger… WordPress don’t allow it. The first video is very small and hard to see but the second one is clearer.

On Friday night I had my first ever amateur kickboxing fight, in a ring at a summer festival by the beach here in Beppu. I was up against a local pimp, who is the same age as me but perhaps 5 kg heavier, and from the same gym as me. I think he lied about his weight because there is another chap in the gym who is REALLY scary who he would have fought if he were heavier. I was the 7th fight out of 10, in the main bout section of the evening, so my bout had ring girls and fireworks. I even had a boxing/K-1 style entrance with my own song (Shared Creation by Garden of Delight).

The ring girls were supplied by my opponent – he works with them.

Anyway, I lost the fight, due to a combination of a) only doing 4 weeks of half-arsed preparation, including a total of 3 rounds of sparring training 4 weeks ago b) being shorter and lighter than him and c) not really wanting to be there in the first place. I’m not sure why I agreed to do a fight or why I decided to only train twice a week and not do special sparring sessions, knowing I’d be up against it on Friday. But that’s what happens when you aren’t really into the thing in the first place, I suppose! I’ve been kickboxing for 15 years and turned down opportunities like this before, and I think I just felt like I had to do it, so accepted my teacher’s offer of a place in the festival without thinking too much about where I’d be 6 weeks later… then took 2 weeks off, and then started training…

Anyway, the details of the fight go something like this:

2 x 2 minute rounds
1 minute rests
Full protective gear (helmet, shinpads, 12 oz rather than 10 oz gloves)
Maximum of two standing 8 counts
Knees allowed but not to the head
No elbows
i.e. kickboxing rules, though often kickboxing rules don’t allow knees. Incidentally, I’ve seen a “no-knees-to-the-head” bout go wrong, with one woman deliberately kneeing the other in the head and getting a knockout. It’s very easy for that to look like an accident, and the referee has to decide whether to award the match over a mistake – that woman was not popular with the crowd, but I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a repeat performance by my opponent. In the ring you do rely a bit on your opponent’s good manners, but I think me and my opponent get along okay usually…

Also, the refereeing was conservative, so the ref stopped fights before he allowed anyone to get knocked out – no bloodbaths to be allowed.

Round 1: We started off pretty equal but he signalled his serious intentions early with 3 really savage kicks to my legs, none of which I managed to block. When the third one came in I realised that I had to pick up my game or I was going to be a Technical Knock Out (I’ve seen this a few times at K-1, where a man’s legs give out and the fight is over). Did I mention 3 rounds of sparring 4 weeks ago? I was running primarily on my memory of serious sparring years ago! So I picked that up, and after that his kicks didn’t land. I delivered some vicious blows in return (and oh what a satisfying sound that is) and in the second half of hte round I heard the commentator (our sensei) saying how I am renowned for my strong punching, and realized that I hadn’t really tried any, so I closed in and boxed him into a corner, landing a nice hard right at some point that rocked his head – he didn’t like that, and pushed his way out of the corner with a series of ferocious kicks and punches. For some reason my usually tight guard was loose, and his punches were coming straight down the centre, which doesn’t usually happen to me in sparring at all – I don’t know what I was thinking[1]. I must have tightened up at some point though because I don’t have any facial bruising, though this could be because he moved to hooks, all of which I defended against. I copped him with a few nice hooks actually, he didn’t seem to be able to defend punches at all. But because he was tall, and using front kicks effectively, it was hard to move in and land punches, and everything was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to work out ways around his guard – typically against a taller man you have to work the outside, or duck and weave, and did I mention I only did 3 rounds of sparring preparation, against a shorter man? Also bobbing and weaving is a very bad plan when you’re in a fight where knees are allowed, so one of my two main range-closing tactics was out of whack.

Round 2: So round 1 ended probably with him slightly up on points, but it was a good showing by both sides. Round 2 went pretty much the same way for the first half, with us exchanging heavy leg kicks, and I think all of mine landed actually but I checked most of his. I also got in a good middle kick that slipped half under his guard, but when you have a savage bastard trying to rip your head off you start thinking conservatively about middle kicks. Every time either of us hit each other you could hear it all the way across the beach, I think. I certainly heard it. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse in the last half of round 2, because at about the 1 minute mark I managed a fairly solid series of boxing combinations, and in his desperation to get away he delivered a vicious knee to my stomach. I took it without being winded, even though it was a few inches from my solar plexus, but it was followed by this tiny moment frozen in time, where we looked at each other and both simultaneously realised that I don’t have any defences against knees. The next 20 or 30 seconds were spent with him trying to get in close enough to land some solid knee strikes, and he succeeded at least twice, and they FUCKING HURT, and I realised that this was not going to keep up, so I had to start backpedalling and trying to hold him off with kicks, while he hunted me down. There was no getting around this – it wasn’t a matter of me doing anything, because I don’t know how to defend against knees (I’ve done maybe 8 rounds of training with knees in the last 10 years), and he knew it, and every time he threw one I was going to cop it. As a sign of how tall he is, today my upper chest is hurting from the knees that landed on my ribs. I managed to get him in a clinch and nearly threw him despite his bigger size, but kubi zumo (neck wrestling) is also not my area of expertise and I only did that out of desperation. So the last 30 seconds of both rounds won him the fight, and the last 30 seconds of round 2 sealed it. I did think about mentioning a no-knees rule when the fights were organised, but didn’t. Oh well, silly me. How was I to know that being kneed in the chest by 75kgs of enraged pimp would hurt?

But, on the bright side, I didn’t suffer any standing 8 counts – maybe the first fight of the night to get through without standing 8s – and I landed some decent blows myself, and I think if I had been fitter and had some more sparring preparation under my belt, I probably would have given him a really solid challenge. Unfortunately, that “I don’t want to be here” feeling that pervaded the last 4 weeks kind of prevented me from putting in a decent showing. I have only myself to blame though – I could have turned up on two of the last 4 sundays for example, and done an hour of decent sparring each day,  and probably would have been a lot tighter on the night. Today my left leg is sore from those missed checks, and my chest aches, but I am otherwise in good nick and feeling very relieved that a busy period of my life and a stressful fight are out of the way.

It was not fun! But it was a good experience that I almost certainly won’t repeat. I don’t recommend it to any of my readers either. Once I figure out my partner’s snazzy phone, I’ll put up some video. It actually looks quite good, though I’m not recognizable in amongst the helmet and the sweat and the flying limbs, but I think I look reasonably professional. I hope my readers wince watching it as much as I did when it happened.

fn1: actually I was mostly thinking nothing. I was nervous and flat before the fight started and then everything was going so fast that I didn’t get to think much at all, bar the crystallized moments of the emergencies. Usually when I spar it takes me a few rounds to get into the groove, and I didn’t have that luxury this time around!

It’s as if James Cameron sat down one day 10 years ago and asked himself (as everyone should!), “how can I make a movie that is perfectly designed to please faustusnotes?” and, before he’d even had a chance to put his hand to his forehead, out of the blue came the answer: combine Nausicaa, Last of the Mohicans and Aliens! A lesser director would probably balk at this plan, but not James Cameron! He managed to pull it off, and throw in more than a little Princess Mononoke while he was at it.

The result of any such attempt, if executed by a good director – say, for example, James Cameron – and including Wes Studi in the cast, would just have to be brilliant. And Avatar is brilliant. I really can’t understand what all the criticism was about, because on any of the points where it supposedly failed, it clearly didn’t – at least within the context of big budget hollywood – and it excelled itself on so many other levels that it thoroughly deserves praise.

In essence it’s a classic anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism story with an excess of noble savage imagery, in which a representative of a powerful culture invades a supposedly savage or less-powerful culture and attempts to destroy them in order to take their resources. Like most imagined anti-imperialism stories along this line, it throws in the standard elements of the plot, with a soldier going native and the noble savages being brave but ultimately hopeless, though unlike in the standard noble savage story, in this case they aren’t doomed at the end. The story does what a lot of previous iterations of the story explicitly refuse to do – it has used the medium of science fiction to grant the natives the power they think resides in their own myth, and thus enables them to emerge victorious. This fundamentally undermines the original racist underpinnings of the noble savage myth, incidentally, which is based on the assumption that the beauty or pride of the natives is full of pathos because of their inability to endure in the face of a superior western culture – they’re doomed to die out, and we have to mourn their loss but accept its inevitability, which may also be a reflection on our own fall from the state of grace we supposedly once enjoyed in our more primitive forms. This doesn’t apply in Avatar, because the Nabi aren’t museum pieces, but a thriving culture with special technology, and in the end they use it.

I should say at this point that, although I portray the tale as “a classic anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism” story, I’m hard pressed to think of many in the modern era. “Classic” stories of this ilk are actually few and far between. Sure, we have some stories that are anti-war, or anti-particular wars (such as Platoon, or Three Kings) and we have a few tales which tell the sad story of the end of an indigenous tribe (like, say, Last of the Mohicans) and we have a few that are transparently glorifying in the conquest of the natives (Pocahontas?) and even a few which just attempt to portray them as the mysterious other (Black Robe), but do we really have very many anti-colonialism stories floating about? Sure, there may be some in print, but I think in the movies they’re actually few and far between, which probably explains the visceral right-wing response to a movie which so transparently puts America, rather than 19th century Britain, in the imperialist picture. It does so, too, with all the button-pushing tricks which James Cameron used so effectively in Aliens, deployed viciously to get us to think both ways, and to see the humanity of both sides. No wonder supporters of wars of choice don’t like it.

So what does Avatar actually do? It gives us a disabled hero, Jake Sully, whose legs are useless, who has been dumped against his will into a role he can’t perform, surrounded by people unlike him, because his brother died back home and he has the genetic fit to replace his brother in a very expensive job. The job in question is remote-control driving an avatar, the body of a Nabi alien grown in a lab, and using it to engage with the local Nabi on the planet of Pandora. He doesn’t have much else to do, the pay is good, and the military pressure him, so he goes. And as soon as he begins remote piloting that body, everything changes. Then the plot starts and he ends up being faced with some difficult choices between the needs of the soldiers and the corporation who want to exploit Pandora, on the one hand, and the needs of the Nabi amongst whom he is (literally) going native, on the other. Unusually for a hollywood movie, too, there is no artificial resolution here – he has to pick sides, and it looks likely that picking the Nabi side isn’t going to work for him.

From the moment I started watching this, I was struck by the complex ideas the avatars can be seen to embody. I immediately thought of Thomas Covenant, who thinks he is dreaming but refuses at first to engage with his world because the moment he wakes up, he’s back to being a leper; better to hang on to his reality than allow false hope, which is a problem surely Jake is going to suffer when he spends half his days in a body he can’t own, able to run and jump and fly, but the other half in a body with no legs. I was also reminded of the very new ethical controversies surrounding our real life versions of these remote pilots – the people flying drones over Afghanistan and Iraq from safe bases in the UK or America, who are a million miles from the (usually incorrectly targeted) actual people they are killing. The thought everyone has about this type of war is that its remoteness prevents people from making accurate moral decisions, because there is literally no interaction between them and the target, not even at the level of risk. But Jake Sully, while he is remote piloting, does interact with his targets, and that makes the offer of treachery he so easily takes early on in the movie all the more callous when it comes to its cruel fruition.

This movie was very well crafted, from beginning to end. Of course the actors are great, especially Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. The world is wonderful, though I understand its blueness may not appeal to everyone. It’s clearly modeled on the jungles from Nausicaa, though there’s a strong undersea influence that I really like, and which really suits its low-gravity physics. The flying scenes are also beautiful, and very very redolent of Nausicaa at her finest. Just when the tension and boredom of his daily life begins to get too much, Jake Sully thrusts us into a beautifully-rendered combat, chase or action scene, so the pace of the movie is good despite its length. The mecha are James Cameron at his best, and also (again) the comparison of Sully on his tiny flying thing against the great corporate machines is very close to Nausicaa on her Mehve versus the Corvettes of her enemy. The Nabi themselves are very similar to Native Americans, an image which must have offended all those many Americans who don’t want to accept any particular hard realities about the behaviour of previous incarnations of Jake Sully, or the moral culpability of those corporations which “explored” the “wild” west. This similarity reached its cinematic perfection for me when I noticed Wes Studi, of Magua fame, playing the Nabi chieftain – reprising his role of Magua on the side of the good guys! And there’s more than a hint of Princess Mononoke in the relative positions and roles of Sully and his lover (whose name I didn’t quite catch).

In many ways, too, I think viewing this movie is like watching a version of Aliens remade by a more mature James Cameron. Aliens is shallow in the very best of ways, an action movie which glorifies a bunch of macho soldiers while it glorifies in destroying them; but it is devoid of any cultural context, any sense of the soldiers as having a military past, or any moral questions about who they are or what they have done in the past. The corporate operative is a cardboard cutout wall street bad guy, who from the start has no humanity. In their new incarnations in Avatar, these characters are fully fleshed out and human. The soldiers hint at their pasts, referring to conflicts in trouble spots we know of – Nigeria or “the desert” – and though they are the same rich, interesting characters from Aliens, we don’t see them in this movie in the same sense as uncomplicated representatives of the human race. These people, the first ambassadors of humanity to the Nabi, have killed humans, and are proud of it. Their leader is a noble savage figure of his own, vicious and strong and proud of it, loving his men and ruthless in his disposal of them. The corporate rep is just as scummy as in Aliens, but this time he has a conscience, and we see him struggling with it as he acts in his own and his corporation’s interests in heartless and destructive ways. As the tension mounts and the cost to his humanity along with it, we see his rhetoric escalate through a pretense at callousness to outright hatred, but it’s impossible not to notice the occasional nervous gulps, and the uncertainty. This is a man who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he doesn’t have to do it himself, and he knows where the benefits lie. To back it up we’re given regular hints that the situation on Earth isn’t so pleasant, and the mission to Pandora isn’t just a mission of enrichment, but that there may be an edge of desperation to it. No one on the human side in this story comes out unsullied, but no one goes into it a cold inhuman monster, either. James Cameron has attempted to construct, within the limited confines of an action movie, a real semblance of the moral and cultural imperatives of soldiers and corporates in a colonial administration.

This inversion and maturing of the Aliens mythos is beautifully represented in film through the reversal of some of the key images from that movie. In that movie the hive mind was undoubtedly evil and the soldiers good and helpless – in this movie the soldiers are not good, and in control of their own situation and the escalation of the conflict, while the hive mind is portrayed as good from the start. That movie finishes with a memorable final scene of the frail human in her mechanised cage, destroying the highest representative of the hive mind. In this movie the most evil representative of the humans is in that metal cage, and the good guy is the representative of the hive mind that is being destroyed outside of it. The figures in the battle are reversed just as the moral sides have been flipped. I don’t think any of these images arose by accident. This is masterful work by Cameron, renegotiating his own opus to represent a more mature view of war and soldiers and the Other.

I’ve heard of a few other criticisms of Avatar that I’d like to look at, both political and aesthetic:

  • It’s just another anti-colonialism movie: what are the other ones?
  • It’s anti-American: It’s anti-imperialistic, and the only way it can be therefore construed as anti-American is if we equate imperialism and America. Does America still have a policy of manifest destiny? I’m yet to see anyone who criticized Avatar on this basis make a coherent claim that America is an imperialistic nation, or that it is still following a policy of manifest destiny. So how can this movie be anti-American? If the problem is that everyone doing the bad stuff is American, well, I think that there have been many many movies made with Americans playing the roles of Nazis, Russian spies, super-villains, etc. that were not decried for their anti-Americanism. The essence of this objection is that the movie too closely resembles a critique of the formation of America; but most of the people objecting to the movie also simultaneously object to claims that America was a colonialist project, so how can they then claim this movie is anti-American? Only by studiously maintaining that any history lesson with America as the bad guy is wrong – and any such objection is unscholarly, anti-historical, in short just plain stupid and wrong.
  • The plot is crap: I don’t get this at all. The plot is very simple – soldier goes native, picks sides in a colonial war, helps the natives, the war unfolds, things happen. There is nothing complex in this plot, and as far as I can tell the only real holes in it are the usual action movie holes where people get away with things that in real life they wouldn’t (like refusing to fire on a sacred site, but not being punished; or running through a building full of cctv without being noticed). The plot of this movie is a third as complex as Last of the Mohicans, and I would say pretty much on a par with Aliens, so where’s the problem? Action movie plus simple plot, with a few minor slips to enable smooth flow of the action, is perfection, in my view.
  • The anti-colonialist ideals are ruined by the going native imagery[1]: under this criticism, it’s bad that Jake Sully helped save the natives, because in doing so he removed their agency and ability to control their own destiny, and weakened claims about their own power. This is a valid criticism, from some purist post-colonial perspective, but it fails on basic aesthetic grounds, and more vaguely on a post-colonial grounds. The aesthetic grounds is that, of course, you could make a movie in which all the people in the movie who are like the people in the audience (i.e. American) are bad, and all the people who are unlike the audience (i.e. the 10′ tall blue people with brains in their tails) are good; but good luck with that. You need a person to bridge the gap in the races to maintain the key ideas of the anti-colonial tirade, namely that we all share a common soul, and that the act of colonialism itself was not some kind of racial or cultural inevitability – it was a set of choices by people like Jake Sully who, like Jake Sully, could have chosen differently. And, more practically, you need the audience to be able to identify with the hero, while identifying with the Other through him or her. This is the radical threat of the soldier who goes native, and precisely the reason that such behaviour was so widely scorned in colonial times. Secondly, from a post-colonial perspective this complaint is overdone because colonialism usually requires interaction and interrelations between the colonised and the coloniser, it involves treachery and compliant local powers, and there is no simple sense in which the colonials and the colonisers are simply divided by a line that sets them apart. The idea of an anti-colonial narrative in which everyone amongst the colonised is pure, and everyone amongst the colonising is evil, is as simplistic as a 1920s cowboys and indians movie in which the indians are all savages who have to be wiped out[2].
  • The noble savage thing[see footnote 1]: the thing about noble savages is that they fit into action movies a lot better than if they were just noble and not very savage; and anyone who has watched Black Robe or Apocalyptica knows that it’s really hard to feel too much for a character who is just unremittingly savage. If your movie opens with you knowingly eating raw capybara testicles, things just are going to go downhill with your audience. If, on the other hand, it opens with the opening chase scene from Last of the Mohicans, we’re immediately on your side, and we don’t want you to die. The noble savage is an idea that rightly pisses off the people on the savage end of it, but when done well it is the main vehicle by which indigenous people are able to enter the consciousness of their western colonisers as real, worthwhile people while also retaining their difference. It’s also worth noting that the full and proper definition of “noble savage” requires a kind of acceptance that the “noble” part of the native character is an anachronism, and has to give way to the modernising influence of the white man; that the concept involves a fundamental assumption that this culture must pass, and that we should mourn its passing the way we mourn the passing of the dinosaurs, with a shrug of our shoulders and a guilty relief that they aren’t stepping on our car. This doesn’t happen in Avatar, because the sci-fi medium enables Cameron to imbue their “anachronistic” gaia-worship with a magical force which prevents their passing. So what we’re left with is more of a “noble warrior” or a “paladin savage” image which is not going anywhere, thank you very much (and is fun to watch in combat).
  • The deus ex machina ending: I have no problem with a deus ex machina that is set up in the plot and is a fundamental requirement of the narrative context. Joseph has to squish the Egyptians with God’s Help; Jake Sully has to have his moment with the birds
  • An action movie with a disabled lead: I think that not enough has been made of the fact that Cameron cast the lead character of an action movie as a person with a disability – a significant disability. I think this is quite revolutionary for hollywood, and should be used in all future conversations in which high-minded film buffs who think David Lynch is great tell you that action movies are shallow. Piss on them from a great height with the moral superiority of your equal opportunity action movie cred. But don’t mention the interesting and unresolved tension in the movie – the utopian society Sully wants to enter clearly has no place for the disabled, and as soon as you fall off a tree in Pandora that’s it, you’re deadweight on a very anti-disability society. I didn’t see many wheelchair ramps or braille signs on Home Tree.
  • The squishy ending: I really hate fantasy stories where the character goes into a world they love so much more than this one, but at the end they return to the mundane world – in this case returning to life with no legs. I am willing to settle for any kind of compromise in order to have them get their wish and stay in the paradise they want to be in. This is part of the reason I love Neil Gaiman. Also, I note that the ritual in which Sully achieves this goal looks very much like that weird dance-ritual thingy in Baraka.

I think it should be pretty clear from this review that I loved this movie. My partner first saw it while tripping, which I think she recommends; I don’t know about that, but I strongly recommend watching it, and if you like it but haven’t seen them already, check out its main influences too, because they’re great as well.  And if the supposedly rabidly left-wing anti-colonialism shtick pisses you off (because you, you know, like killing people and taking their stuff[3]), then just sit back and enjoy the awesome fireworks. Or take a chill pill.

fn1: what is it about the left that, when presented with a brilliant left-wing anti-colonial polemic, widely popular and brilliantly done, they have to bring up these second-rate, second-order nitpicks of the work? I don’t particularly care if there is some aspect of modern “ism” politics that it fails on, it still does a damn good job of attacking the thing it sets out to attack, and we should be happy about that and save our complaints about it for some more deserving project

fn2: in fact I suspect most early cowboy-and-indians movies were more sophisticated than this, portraying indians on both sides of the battle and giving them a great deal of agency, even if it simultaneously portrayed them as inferior and bad

fn3: which obviously all my role-playing readers do

These being paintings of airships and early aircraft at war, particularly world war 1, which can be found here. I was stumbling about the internet this sunday evening and discovered this site via this chap, a military historian with a focus on aerial warfare. I’m one of those rubes who has no skills in historical analysis but a strong interest, so I’m easily taken in by the next history book I read, but it seems like this site has some interesting historical theorizing going on.

I was struck immediately by the romantic steampunk elements of the images on display there. They map immediately to Stephen Hunt’s books, which are set in a fantastical Britain, never named but clearly portrayed as such. There’s a definite element of romance to those giant ships of the air… and even though any image you see of war in the sky is actually horrific and coldly terrifying, somehow those early aviators manage to retain a sense of casual adventure, the essence of romantic steampunk role-playing.

Because there isn’t a great deal of easy work in steamy Beppu, I’ve taken up some freelance editing work while I wait on certain work opportunities to develop over the next few months. This editing work involves editing about 100 very short (200 word or so) articles by adult Japanese students of English, written casually on topics drawn from daily life. This is a bit like doing a kind of vox populi of ordinary Japanese life – how often does a person get to read the opinions of 100 normal people every month in their own country, let alone in another? The articles cover a wide range of topics, from political topics (including whaling, environmental issues, the declining population) to what someone had for lunch yesterday. But there are some interesting trends and ideas in the articles, which have surprised me.

Japanese seasonal writing transcends the mother tongue

Even a passing familiarity with Japanese literary and cultural traditions is enough to acquaint the foreigner with the idea that Japanese people have a strong sense of the importance of the seasons and the cycles through which they move. Furthermore, this sense is an important aesthetic motif in writing, art and philosophy. I was slightly surprised to discover that not only does this sense extend into everyday writing by everyday Japanese, but it extends into their writing in a second language, no matter how amateur their writing skill. Some writers will speak self-consciously of the importance of the seasons, but much more common are essays about a seasonal topic or activity, with no self-referential cultural knowledge. They simply report on or revel in the seasonal activities they love. These topics come in waves, so in April I received a bunch of essays about hanami (cherry-blossom viewing); in late April, articles about the beauty of walking through falling blossoms; early May, articles about children’s day and koinobori (carp streamers) in the wind; in late May, now, I am receiving a huge pile of articles about children’s sports days, which occur in the end of May. In the middle, there were a series of articles about what people did in their week-long Golden Week holidays, often about their experience of “nature.”

The tradition of writing about nature is language-invariant

A lot of the articles, regardless of the season, involve descriptions of the natural world and trips into it. This doesn’t surprise me in a nation that is essentially Shinto (though of course, the Japanese will tell you they’re not religious, possibly while they’re taking you to a shrine, where they will, of course, pray). It’s interesting the extent to which it enters their writing in a second language, and the extent to which even with limited language skills the writers are able to convey a sense of love of nature built around mountains and seasonal changes, and imbued with a feeling of mystery.

Miyazaki’s characters are real

Another noteworthy point is that Miyazaki Hayao‘s anime are so imbued in the national consciousness that they don’t need introduction. If someone visits the house on which My Neighbour Totoro was based, they don’t need to preface their activity with this information; they just say, “I visited Satsuki and Mei’s house.” It’s almost as if Mei-chan is every Japanese person’s neighbour.

Heian-era ideas never change

Some of the topics seem to emerge straight from a lost Japanese era, and are striking for their eternal Japaneseness. These articles read like a vox populi conducted in the Heian era, or taken from the Tale of Genji. For example:

  • I have received several articles about haiku-gathering trips, in which groups of Japanese people go to an area of nature during a period of seasonal change, wander about for a few hours, take some time to write a few haiku, then gather in a restaurant or tea house and compare haiku. One was even assigned a grade. This is a level of formality about the interaction of Japanese language and nature which, in addition to being largely unheard of in the West, is a direct tradition inherited from prior eras
  • I have received some articles about manners which read like a Heian court epic, particularly articles about the disputes between a woman and her daughter over wedding plans, or about the behaviour of “ladies” in a workplace towards the men, and how it is simultaneously elegant and deceptive
  • Many articles will invoke timeless images of Japanese life, in passing, which immediately attach an image of historical continuity to the work – images like the koinobori, or being able to see Fuji from your backyard, mentioning falling sakura in connection with an activity unrelated to the season, and so on.
  • Sometimes, the essay has a cunning, sonnet-like trick in which the essay builds through a gentle and wistful tone, but in the last sentence or paragraph suddenly changes direction completely to deliver a hard, vicious or cruel conclusion about the personality of the author or one of their interlocutors. I’m convinced this is a trick of a historical form of Japanese writing, though I don’t know which kind

Japanese wistfulness is independent of writing skill

A lot of the writing I receive has a wistful and elusive tone that one might associate with a more professionally-done style of Japanese writing, or with historical writing. It’s interesting that even people with quite low-level English skills manage to capture the slight sense of vagueness that enters normal Japanese conversation, along with the passive acceptance of other peoples’ traits, and the roundabout way of presenting strongly-held opinions or uncomfortable facts. I would have thought that representing national character by nuance in a story is a trait of a skilled writer, but it turns out that this seems to occur even where the English level is quite low. The style seems to mostly survive editing, though sometimes I feel like I have to bend the rules of English to preserve a style that is obviously of the author’s own making, even if not deliberately done.

About the picture: taken from the story “Yuki Watari” (Crossing the snow) by Miyazawa Kenji, illustrations by Katao Ryo, which I bought for my partner’s birthday.

I went on a YouTube wander tonight, starting at Rupesh Cartel and ending up at Jethro Tull, who’ve been around since the 70s. I noted that in their earlier days Jethro Tull sang about very mediaeval stuff, along with the small concerns of ordinary life one might expect to associate with a peasant’s view (think Thick as a Brick and Heavy Horses here), but by the early 90s they were singing about agricultural society and the larger issues of a complex and interconnected social structure (think here Farm on the Freeway) before advancing further to the concerns of the military-industrial complex (in Broadsword) in the mid-90s. Of course, the tone of Broadsword is very much mythical/legendary, but the content – voluntary preparation for war and glory – is a much more modern (Victorian?) phenomenon. The peasant from whose view they sing in the early days would see war very much as a catastrophe that he/she has to be involved in, not as a source of mythical glory.

Is there any phenomenon in human society that Heavy Metal hasn’t covered[1]?

fn1: If you aren’t sure yet, I watched a clip from The Man of la Mancha, a 70s movie starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, based loosely around Don Quixote. I was brought to it by the Australian prog metal band Vanishing Point, who sample it. It’s all covered, I tell you.

Many years ago I ran a campaign I referred to as “The Apocalypse Campaign,” set in a post-apocalyptic Europe in which the sea level had risen. This was back when A4 drawing tablets for a computer were hideously expensive, and scanners were expensive too. So to make my higher sea-level Britain, I photocopied pages from an atlas (A4 size), did some careful calculations of enlargement scales to get all the different-scaled maps up to the same A3 size, then carefully joined them together, traced them out onto a new, single huge piece of paper on a light table I found in an abandoned garage next to my house[1] (even light tables were quite expensive, I recall!) and then painted over the lines.

So I spent, obviously, a lot of time on this, and I came up with a quite fascinating piece of work in which England was broken into several significant islands drawn on a crappy map coloured by one of the worst artists the world has ever known (me). I had to flood the world by quite a bit – maybe 50m I think – to reproduce the effect I wanted, which was the beautiful world map from the White Bird of Kinship novels[5], and this took some work, and I think I used a bit of GM’s license in there too (it’s not like anyone was going to check, this was before the internet could host massive maps, so no silly nerd was going to come along and complain I had my contours wrong).

Today I discovered that this site, using google maps, can produce the whole effect in a few seconds. Not only that, it can give street-level detail of anywhere in the world, hardly a comfort if you live in Bangladesh or Amsterdam; but it did enable me to check the location of my own flat, and determine that with a 5m sea level rise I’ll be on water-front property! Any more, and I’ll be going uphill in a hurry.

Perfect material for post-environmental-apocalypse gaming, if only it showed values more extreme than 14m. Who cares about that? (Besides a couple of 100 million South Asians, and the entire Pacific Island diaspora).

fn1: an interesting story that. I went digging through that garage with my flatmate, who had written some excellent art theory articles about Bladerunner[2], and we discovered a box full of old documents. Sorting through this box, we discovered a bunch of jewish religious material and some schoolbooks from world war 2. We contacted the owner of the garage to tell them what we had found, and it turned out that the owner was my boss, and the school book pictures were some material from her own childhood that she had lost. I think her parents had been refugees from Germany, though I don’t recall that clearly. Anyway, we kept the light table.

fn2: The gist of them was, 1) that Roy Batty plays a role very similar to that of the Gnostic Redeemer, come to Earth to destroy his maker and to tell the people that the Earth is a trick created by Satan (or some such), and 2) that photo that Decker examines on his super-crash-hot computer[3] is a close simulacrum of some painting by a dutch master, which famously has the picture of the painter in the mirror; but in the Bladerunner version, there is nothing in the mirror, and the investigation of the photo is physically impossible. This serves to cause the reader to question their own humanity, whereas in the original painting the figure of the painter in the mirror is meant to restore your sense of self as a viewer, and remind you of the presence of a human creator. Or something[4]

fn3: I watched Bladerunner again 2 nights ago, and it’s interesting how in some ways the vision of future technology is really basic, such as the TV on which the photo is examined, but in other ways really advanced, such as when Decker directs a computer to do things with commands like “no wait! back up!”

fn4: They were actually really good, but after 15 years the details are a bit blurry.

fn5: Which I recommend, strongly

I present this in honour of Sir Noisms’ adventures on the Inland sea, without further comment:

I’m fairly confident that Noisms, Sir Grognard, and in fact any the people on my blogroll except (maybe) Wax Banks would be quick to describe themselves as “not really much of a post-modernist,” and probably even be quite quick to tell me exactly what they think of the idea. But if we go and check, for example, the website of any of the role-playing bloggers regularly visited, we will soon find a pastiche of interests. For example, today on Grognardia we can see his current reading is Lord Darcy, classic pulp, but if we go back in time a bit we’ll find he was reading Conan, or Lord of the Rings, and we’ll find posts about Gamma World (which is obviously drawn from 50s popular fear of nuclear holocaust, and the lurid visions of its aftermath which were common in the media then). Over at Noisms’ place we find a heady mix of Tibetan mythology, classic sword and sorcery, some Cthulhu (a common theme across blogs), and an American (?) cartoon with Japanese animation, plus a graph and a bit of piracy.There’s some film noir in there too during his Warhammer period.

All of this, of course, against a regular backdrop of D&D, whose Appendices contain a highly eclectic reading list and which was itself influenced by such diverse arcana as Lord of the Rings, Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, ’30s pulp fiction, military history, and Jack Vance’s 60s science-fantasy. It’s a pastiche. And what is the classic theory of the pastiche? Post-modernism.

D&D is really just a mechanism for drawing together a whole bunch of quite disparate genres, themes, broad ideals and even creative media. We have miniatures at Grognardia, mapping at Eiglophian press, illustration at Back Screen Pass, possibly some music to set the scene, and of course everywhere we have that medium unique to role-playing – dice!! About the only new thing about it is the rules by which the merging is done – rules which bind the genres and the creative media altogether through the interaction of a group of people, but the first rule of which is that the rules themselves are mutable and open to challenge. It’s just a mechanism for reinterpreting diverse texts; and a mechanism, at that, which is subject to dispute even as the process is underway.

Which makes it post-modernism in a nutshell. It’s a critical theory! A synthesis!

Consider even the creative process by which all of this pastiche is synthesized. A group of players get together at a table. One might be completely naive to the whole process, one is probably a die-hard Lord of the Rings and pulp fantasy fan, one might have a strong interest in westerns and 50s memorabilia, another might be actually quite disinterested in fantasy and more of a sci-fi guy, and another might be heavily into anime and mecha. Another person creates a world, usually by pasting together a bunch of ideas they stole from other genres, and everyone creates a story collaboratively, using a set of rules which they argue about and change where necessary (the medium is itself contested during the creative process!) Also, the whole thing often happens in the presence of at least 2 mind-altering substances (caffeine and alcohol). At the end of the night, the DM writes it all up and chucks it on the internet, where it becomes… a text!

And, to chuck a final beautiful post-modern irony onto the whole thing, it’s safe to say that aside from a certain Dr. P[1],  and a certain Barbarian S[2], I’ve almost never had players who had any interest in post-modernism and who, if offered an opportunity to comment on this much-reviled form of modern art theory, will give a knee-jerk dismissive response, based on some kind of latent fear of “relativism”. They’re more likely to lay claim to an aesthetic, moral and cultural background in modernism, romanticism or neo-classicism than they are any kind of more recent wank like post-modernism. Yet there they are, clustered around a table, producing the perfect post-modern text, leaving Baudrillard and his shabby theories in the dust as they form from the raw material of multiple disparate texts and creative media the material of a perfect post-modern pastiche. This perfect post-modern art form is created by people who reject the underlying cultural theory almost in its entirety, and lay claim (mostly) to the very ethos it is supposed to replace!

We are all, as the Germans might say, post-modernists now…

fn1: whose critical interpretations of Bladerunner, by the way, were fantastic!

fn2: who had 2 mothers, not by a previous marriage scenario, and was studying genocide studies

Things one just leaves lying about...

Things one just leaves lying about...

I visited Denmark for a week last week, and amongst other places I visited was the National Museum of Photography, which was hosting an exhibition entitled Unintended Sculptures by the Danish photographer Henrik Saxgren. I was drawn to it by this picture on the poster, which is from Iceland. The exhibition is essentially a series of very large pictures of artificial objects left in natural environments, and is meant to provide a contrast of the two. Most of the pictures didn’t do this very well but the ones from Iceland were very stark and impressive. I like the idea of this type of art, found items or whatever it is called – but in this case the exhibition ultimately seemed like a bunch of fancily rebadged holiday snaps. And anyway, everything I have seen of Iceland suggests that anyone who goes there with a half-decent camera could open an exhibition of their holiday snaps and people would pay to see them.

So overall the exhibition was a bit disappointing – some shots of walls, a few weird cactusses and some big plastic stuff in a forest, and 4 amazing snapshots from Iceland. Go and see it if you’re in Copenhagen, it’s better than the Design Centre, but probably if you have to choose you’re better off going to the botanic gardens (where I saw a red squirrel!)

Also, Denmark is awesome and Danes are like vikings in suits! And they love Australians!